5 Rules for Keeping an Open Mind
It’s almost midnight. I’m getting into Uber to take me home from the train station after another long day at work. The driver, a man with a remarkably long, black, shiny beard and shortly cut hair, makes me feel a bit uncomfortable at first.
I start a general conversation just to become less tense. I mention that I like running in the morning, and Sayed, the driver, says, “I love running, but if someone sees me running with such beard, they will be shocked”, and he starts laughing.
Sayed is from Afghanistan, and he has been living in the UK with his family for over five years. “A country with a lot of politics”, as he describes Afghanistan, “What you call hills, we call rocks, and what you call mountains, we call hills.”, and we laugh together.
I’m wondering if this country that has been at war for years accepts tourists these days. To my surprise, Sayed responds affirmatively and starts talking about a province called Bamyan.
Looked after by Habiba Sarabi, the first Afghan woman to become a governor, since 2005, this region has started to flourish in the post-Taliban reconstruction of Afghanistan.
It’s a short trip. I arrive home, but I’m not hurrying to get out of the car. Sayed keeps talking about his country.
It’s incredible how some encounters are capable of getting us rid of misconceptions influenced by the press and the media. It happened to be the most memorable conversation I’ve had with an Uber driver.
As Mark Twain cleverly noted once,
“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Getting into trouble doesn’t necessarily mean encountering some unpleasant situations. From missed opportunities to unbuilt relationships, our misconceptions can seriously hold us back.
So what’s the solution? Here are the five rules I’ve adopted for myself to develop and maintain an open perspective.
1. Start with first-principles thinking
Marcus Aurelius, the ruler of the Roman Empire in the second century, is known for his love of stoicism through the diary he wrote that is now called “Meditations”.
In it, Marcus asks himself where to find the answers on how to live. And he answers the question by saying that first principles should govern our intentions and our actions.
First principles deal with the fundamental notions that exist in our world, the concepts of good and evil.
“That nothing is good except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will. And nothing bad except what does the opposite.”
Processing events in our lives through the prism of first principles helps us make the right decision when facing a difficult choice while avoiding prejudice.
2. Be aware of the three habits affecting our decisions
When facing a situation, the decisions we make and thus the actions we undertake are driven by our current psychology, which in turn is governed by three types of habits.
The first one is the habit of deleting. Our brains have limits on the amount of information it can process at a given point in time. Therefore, we tend to ignore things, events, or sounds that we find unimportant.
The second is the habit of distorting. We have a natural tendency to distort the reality around us, whether to the better or the worse. Once again, Mark Twain wittingly noted,
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
The key here is always to maintain a sense of the present. Not to linger in the past, nor to attach ourselves to the future.
The third one is the habit of generalising. With age, people tend to become more conservative, and their decisions are affected more and more by their previous experiences. While sometimes such experience can be valuable, it’s better to be aware of our tendency to generalise and seek more objective and relative information when making a decision in given circumstances.
In particular, I don’t like generalising people, what leads us to the rule number three.
3. Avoid generalisations
I have never been fond of generalisations like the ones we’ve heard lately: “The relationship between the US and Russia are at their worst since the Cold War”.
To my mind, individual humans, with all their passions, fallacies, aspirations, and beliefs, are the ones who stand behind every action of a country or a company.
I was glad to find confirmation to my thinking in the book “Misbehaving” by the 2018 Nobel prize laureate in economics Richard Thaler. He writes,
“Clearly, in order to understand how teams or any other organisations make decisions — and therefore how to improve them — we need to be fully aware that they are owned and managed by Humans.”
It is the study of psychology and behavioural economics that has made me more aware of the peculiarities in talking to individual people, which leads us to the rule number four.
4. Be mindful of personalities
Human personalities are one of my most favourite discoveries. I first came across the Myers-Briggs classification and learned a lot of interesting things about myself by taking a test at the 16Personalities website.
While not ideal, I reckon it’s a great starting point for someone to study personalities beyond a binary classification of introverts and extroverts that most people are aware of.
The Dark Triad — machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy — is another scale that helps to learn about your friends and colleagues something new after they pass the test.
Finally, the HEXACO model of personality structure, and, more importantly, the book called “The H Factor of Personality” offer a more structured and easy to remember classification.
The topic of personalities by itself is way too broad to talk about in a single section. But I do recommend you to study this subject to help you understand why some relationships don’t work and avoid getting disappointed about them.
5. Eat failure for breakfast
Since our childhood, we’ve been penalised for our mistakes and failures. What is worse, we have rarely been given an attempt or encouragement to improve. Sometimes children even hear a verdict that they will never be good at a particular skill.
However, I’ve come to understand that our world works in a way, that all great happenings take place only after a person perseveres through a series of failures.
It took Thomas Edison thousands of failed experiments before he finally came up with the right solution to make a light bulb. J.K. Rowling reportedly said that ‘loads’ of editors rejected her work on Harry Potter.
If a failure becomes an obstacle to your goal, make the obstacle your way, as Ryan Holiday suggests in his book “The Obstacle Is the Way”. Experiment, fail miserably and repeat until the success stops coming to your mind. Through such a loop you will discover paths that you would not have encountered otherwise.
As with everything, keep an open mind and try to find the rules that work for you. Always think for yourself — it’s one of the Principles that Ray Dalio talks about in his book and the short video series.